Two of the biggest social movements in American history were the Civil Rights Movement and the feminist movement. Melinda Momplaisir is combing through history to study the interconnectedness and importance of these causes from a legal perspective.
The central focus of Momplaisir’s research is that the law is a reflection of society. Momplaisir seeks to show through Supreme Court cases that law does not reflect a universal moral code, but demonstrates the particular sentiment of a country at a given time.
“My research shows that the law itself is based off of society and how we, as a group, perceive certain things,” said Momplaisir, a junior double-majoring in history and comparative literature.
Citing cases from the early 1900s, Momplaisir said women were only afforded rights at home where motherhood was their primary focus. As society changed, laws changed and women were allowed to serve on juries and work the same amount of hours as men.
Another point Momplaisir emphasized in her research was what she referred to as “classification.” She pointed out that groups need to be acknowledged by the law before they can be protected by it.
“It wasn’t until women were specifically classified as a group that can be discriminated against, and African-Americans were classified as a race that can be discriminated against, that they really benefited under the law,” Momplaisir said.
Momplaisir also argued against referring only to the founders’ intentions in writing the Constitution in the 1700s, saying that it is acceptable to change interpretations over time.
“When the founders said all men were equal, that wasn’t true. They had slaves, women were second-class citizens and it was a very different world,” she said.
According to Momplaisir, attempting to stick to a strictly originalist view of the Constitution distorts the relationship between law and society.
“As a society, we define what is right and what is OK. We shouldn’t let people try to stick so close to the wordings of laws,” she said. “It is our duty as a society to decide what is the best interpretation at the time for a law.”
The reversibility of discrimination cases is another aspect of Momplaisir’s research.
“The way that a lot of feminist movements went about getting rights for women was by getting rights for men,” she said. “Men would be the plaintiffs and prove they were discriminated against as men. That would be the way they get it to be based off sex.”
Momplaisir conducted her research in conjunction with Donald Nieman, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.
Nieman spoke highly of Momplaisir’s research. He served as her mentor for her sophomore year research project at Binghamton University and has continued to act as her mentor into her junior year.
“Melinda has a highly inquisitive mind, a passion for social justice and a strong desire to understand why things are as they are,” he said. “Her current research project explores the ways in which women’s rights advocates of the 1960s and 1970s built upon the successes of African-American civil rights attorneys to use law as a tool to advance the rights of women. Her research will help us understand the possibilities — and limits — of law as a tool of social change and equity.”